Megan Abbott

Picking Herbs

Megan Abbott
Picking Herbs

Originally published on lifeandthyme.com

Like salt, pepper, honey and lemons, herbs are always close by in the kitchen. They stand in wait, ready to be scrunched up, torn, or scattered finely across a dish. Like delicate flowers they shrink and wilt fast, and this short lifespan makes them precious. They can be sturdy and dominant. They can be whisperingly soft. They come and go with the seasons, and in their prime they climb up into the sky like outstretched hands.

Asking six of London’s most accomplished chefs to choose their favourite herb was always going to be problematic. When your passion is ingredients, selecting just one is a struggle. Impossible, even. In fact, the answer was usually the same. “There is no such thing as a ‘favourite’ for a chef.” Tom Hunt said, peering across at his herb garden. “I could have chosen any of them!” Selin Kiazim told us. “It’s tricky to ask a chef to choose just one.” Ramael Scully laughed. “I don’t know where to start!” Get them on the topic, though, and there is always one that jumps to the surface like a rouge grain in a sieve of flour. Coriander is the herb that Selin turns to when she wants to light up a dish. For Tom Hunt, oregano encapsulates summers spent in the Mediterranean eating freshly caught, olive oil-drenched fish. For Olia Hercules, tarragon represents the tough, fearless flavours of Caucasia. If smell is the sense most tied to memory, then the citrusy, zesty scent of marjoram takes Ramael Scully back to his early 20s, when he began cooking on the quayside in Sydney, while curry leaves transport Meera Sodha to Gujarat, the region of India that her grandparents left behind in the 1970s. Recollections of her grandmother’s comforting, romantic home cooking come with the smell of bay leaves for Florence Knight.

While a favourite may have been impossible to choose, there are certain herbs whose sight and scent conjure stories. While some may simply grow in the garden or sway on an inner-city windowsill, others evoke memories of dishes that shaped a life.

Olia Hercules – Tarragon

When we visit Olia Hercules one overcast afternoon, she has just returned to London from a month travelling around the Caucasus, shooting her second book. Her trip ended in Ukraine, where she was born. Her childhood was spent among the cherry and walnut trees, watermelons and gooseberries that grew in abundance in the land that surrounded her hometown of Kakhovka. It was there that she learned to use food seasonally; pickling and preserving produce for the winter months, and celebrating every fallen fruit and plump vegetable in the summer. She has been in the UK for over a decade now, carving out a career in cooking. Over the last couple of years, she has made London sit up and listen to the wonders of Eastern European food. It is a leaf that has been left unturned for far too long. Her first book Mamushka (named after the Ukrainian mother, Armenian aunt and Siberian grandmother that shaped her) is a love note to the decadent, intense flavours of Ukraine “and beyond”. She has become a star of the food world here. But when we first met her back in 2014, it was not just her food that captured us. Olia has a familiarity with every person she meets, a sharp wit, an honesty that cuts through any formalities with just a few words. When we visit her today, she throws open the door and bundles us into the narrow corridor, apologising for her “boring clothes” (she is wearing a beautiful black dress, fresh from a book meeting) and excusing herself for her tiredness. “The trip was so beautiful but so intense. It was constant travelling and working. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.” She remarks, before darting upstairs and reappearing in a printed, ‘50s style dress that matches her trademark red lips. “Ok so, tarragon.” She starts.

“All over Caucasus, they really use tarragon. It’s not like in French cooking, where they just sprinkle tiny little pieces in like this.” She mimics a tight-fisted little cook. “They properly chuck it in. After this recent trip around the Caucasus I’ve fallen in love with tarragon all over again. I loved it anyway. But they really know how to use it.”

To Olia, tarragon is the herb that defines Caucasian cooking. She tells us about tarragon tea, and pie with chopped boiled eggs and tarragon in Georgia. She talks about a Ukranian dish that combines the herb with beetroot and plumbs. Her Armenian auntie used the herb religiously, inspiring the tarragon flatbread that she makes for us today. Standing at her deep stone sink, which is overlooked by tarnished copper pans and family photographs, she runs the water over the leaves. “At the markets in Georgia there are Azerbaijani women selling mountains of herbs.” She tells us, “Georgians call them ‘baji’, which means ‘sister’. They have their hair tied up in colourful scarves, and the tarragon is bundled up with these little wooden pegs.”

She picks up a bowl from the table and breaks off the tops of a few leaves. She offers us both a piece and we stand in her kitchen, the door propped open to the garden, considering the flavour for a moment. “It kind of numbs your mouth. Which I really like.” She laughs. And it is true. The sensation of fresh tarragon begins soft on the tongue and lingers for minutes afterwards, almost medicinal in its strength. In all of Olia’s cooking, from her coriander mutton and beetroot broth to her cardamom pastries and fennel, rhubarb and radish pickle, the flavours are as punchy and strong as her own spirit. “There’s nothing delicate about the flavour of tarragon. But that’s what I like in all cooking. I love, for example, the masters of Japanese cooking that are so careful and subtle with flavours. But that’s not the kind of food I love. For me, flavour has to hit you in the face. Lovingly.”

Tom Hunt – Oregano

We have come to visit Tom Hunt in Southeast London, where he lives in a housing cooperative built in the 1970s; a line of shared terrace houses with wild flowers and thistly branches twisting over the doorways. His kitchen has a hefty concrete table in the middle, a guitar in the corner and ceiling-high cupboards hand built from wood. This kind of set up suits Tom, the ‘eco chef’ and food waste activist whose ‘root to tip’ philosophy of cooking commands the kitchen of Poco, his East London restaurant. He believes in using ingredients when they are ripe and ready, taking advantage of their every inch. His dishes span the globe, inspired by the heat of the Middle East with the pared back elements of Nordic cooking, served like Spanish tapas and showcasing local produce.

Tom leads us out into the shared garden, where velvety nests of sage sit beside milky pink raspberries. The garden is a little wild and brimming with vegetables. He ponders the question at hand. “My ‘favourite’ is what is best at that moment, in whichever season we’re in. It is so hard to pick one herb that I love more. When you first asked me I came out to the garden to see what was in abundance, and was drawn to oregano.” He says, holding a bunch of the soft, drooping leaves in his hand. They are long and bright, with little purple flowers like crowns at their tips. “It really is at its best right now.” He twists another few stalks up from the soil and holds them to his nose. “I get a lot from the smell of oregano. It’s perfumed and sweet. It’s got that lovely grassy smell.” He tears off some leaves and hands them to me. They are cool and moist with oils - imperfect, organic specimens at the prime of their life. I ask Tom what springs to mind when he looks at this herb. “It makes me think of summer, and of the Mediterranean. It makes me think of food that I like to eat; fresh, light summery dishes steeped in olive oil.” He smiles, relishing the thought. The sun breaks through the clouds for a moment, illuminating the tall grass. As he inhales the leaves, another thought pops into his head. “And it reminds me of cooking with Francis Mallmann.” Not long ago, Tom attended the Ballymaloe Literary Festival in Ireland. The dream was to meet the iconic Patagonian chef Francis Mallmann. The reality was even more magical. “I ended up cooking with and assisting him for 12 hours. I got up at 4am and went over to his fire pit.” Tom explains. Beside his culinary hero, he scored huge beef tomatoes and filled in the cracks with slices of garlic and fresh oregano leaves. They were cooked on a giant sheet of steel placed over a fire, until their skins had charred and the oregano and garlic had “melted” in. “One of my main purposes of cooking is to bring people closer to the origin of their food. Francis Mallmann does that through his visceral and grand cooking techniques. Fire is so dramatic and spiritual. It’s a portal back to our roots in nature. It was a good day of cooking…!” He says. “This smell transports me back there.”

Meera Sodha – Curry Leaves

There is a line of plants on the back wall of Meera Sodha’s kitchen. They stand to attention, each one arching over the other in a bid for attention. The tallest of them all is a pot of curry leaves. The trunk of the plant is thin, climbing up towards a crown of greenery. These are the leaves that Meera reaches for first when she begins cooking. They are central to the light, zesty Indian food she has brought to London in books like Made in India and Fresh India. She learned everything she knows from her Gujarati mother, who moved to England in the 1970s following the expulsion of Asians from Uganda by the vicious dictator Idi Amin. Meera grew up watching the women of her family – her mother and “aunties” – bring the food of their country to rural England, cooking spicy samosas and pigeon curries for curious neighbours.

As a “rather rebellious” teenager, she steered clear of the kitchen. It wasn’t until a trip to a “horrible” Indian restaurant on Brick Lane that a need to recreate her native food was sparked in Meera. Her friends opened the menu, stocked with lurid orange jalfrezis and textureless chicken kormas, and asked her what they should choose. “It just wasn’t the food I’d grown up eating. It was so stewed and strangely coloured.” Meera tells us. “I was suddenly overcome with the desire to show my friends true Indian food. The only problem was, I couldn’t create a meal.” Meera began racing back and forth from London to her parents’ small village in Lincolnshire, observing her mother in the kitchen and gathering up a treasure trove of family recipes. “That early time of not cooking helped me.” She explains, “I think if you reject something then come back to it later on in life, you see it through different eyes. It helps to be an outsider sometimes.”

It hits us as soon as we walk in to Meera’s East London house: the unmistakable scent of curry leaves and onions cooking in oil. “That smoky, citrusy smell is South India to me.” She says, tearing off a little branch of the leaves and crunching them in her hand. “It reminds me of Kerala and Cochin, of the inside of people’s homes. The leaves hit the oil and you can smell them straight away. They’re beautiful.” She stirs the medley into some fluffy white rice, which is flecked with tamarind and caramelized onion. With it, she serves coconut prawns. The base of them, like so many great Indian dishes, is a handful of curry leaves. They simmer and spit at the base of the pan, propping up the flavours like a loving hand on a back, leading you through a crowd. “Curry leaves are a very generous herb.” Meera comments, pouring the dal into little tin bowls. “Coriander wilts the moment you add any heat. Parsley tends to disappear, too. There are a lot of fickle herbs. But curry leaves are robust, they never stop giving. They stand their ground!” She says. “There’s absolutely nothing like them.”

Florence Knight – Bay Leaves

Chef Florence Knight thinks bay leaves have been forgotten. “I feel like they’ve been left behind.” She says, standing across from us at the small wooden island in her kitchen. “They remind me of my grandmother’s cooking. She used to cook very traditional English food. She was very resourceful, always using the last bits to create these beautiful dishes.” She recalls meals like pearl barley, lamb slow cooked in a pot and thick, hearty celery soups. All made with bay leaves. “Bay is very romantic and nostalgic for me.” She says.

Florence is the former head chef of the celebrated Venetian small plate restaurant Polpetto. She made a name for herself cooking rich, comforting food; stewed pulses, crumbly meatball pizzetta, chickpea and anchovy crostini. The kind of food you’d like to come back to after a day of delayed trains and cold rain. There are white lacy curtains in there, scuffed walls and lamps draped with white cotton napkins. It is homely, but still makes an occasion of itself. A little like Florence’s chosen herb. “With other, more aggressive herbs, you’re looking for a way to balance the flavour. But with bay you have to encourage it. You have to coax it out of its shell a bit.”

Now, Florence is opening a restaurant of her own. Probably in East London. “Everything’s happening East!” She laughs. We imagine she will use her experience as a cook of Italian food in this new space. And to Florence, there is no herb that combines England and Italy more than bay leaves. “They came from Italy to England, via the Romans.,” she remarks. “I do tend to use them in the background of my cooking. But they really come into their own as a foreground note.” I think of one particular dish of hers; ‘drowned tomatoes’ drenched in olive oil and garlic, cooked with a couple of bay leaves. “They have a flavour I relate to mature, slow foods. It’s that mellow, comforting, medicinal element I love.” She says.

Florence lives in the heart of Soho, West London. But our afternoon with her feels a lot like visiting an old friend at their country cottage. There are black and white chequered floor tiles, a big communal table and lovingly weathered surfaces. It is both the kitchen of a great chef and a growing young family. A wooden crate of bay sits on the table, nestled among fresh vegetables. “Bay has to be fresh.” Florence says, rubbing one of the thick leaves, “There’s nothing worse than dry bay. It’s so sad and brittle.”

If bay was a person, it would be a quiet, watchful character who breaks into a flurry of wit and charm only when the time is right. Bay leaves have no scent until they are torn apart, and can transform the most unlikely dishes. This is why they are never far from Florence in the kitchen. “I like the neglected element of bay. You may not recognise it when you eat it, yet it is distinctive and familiar at the same time. We really take it for granted.” She says, pouring us another cup of tea. “And it can be wonderfully indulgent. If you combine it with caramel or put it in hot chocolate. It can suddenly become this intense, comforting flavour.” “But It’s not shouty.” She continues. “Bay is like a solid friend you can rely on all the time. Who’s not a show off.”

Ramael Scully – Marjoram

There are few people who talk about food like Ramael Scully. He reminds me of a musician friend I have, who adores everything from wind chimes to screamer rock, and talks about the nuances of every song as if you share this passion with him. It’s my favourite thing about him. Ramael Scully – or ‘Scully’ to everyone who knows him - is the same. The head chef of Yotam Ottolenghi’s “grown up” restaurant NOPI and co-author of its follow up cookbook has an encyclopaedic knowledge of ingredients and cooking techniques. His mingling Indian, Malaysian, Irish and Chinese heritage has massively influenced his cooking, cross pollinating with Ottolenghi’s Middle Eastern flavours to create the NOPI menu. We have been to see him a few times in the kitchen there, and he never fails to amaze us with his tireless love of food.

Each time we see Scully, he is never more than a few feet from a kitchen. The first time we met him was in Ottolenghi’s kitchen, cooking a pistachio and pine nut-crusted halibut. After that we saw him in action at NOPI, whipping up a black rice pudding with coconut milk and perfect shakshuka at breakfast time. Today we are in his home kitchen in North London. It is pretty hard to imagine him in any other setting now. He gravitates towards the pots and pans, the knives and flames, the endless flavour combinations inspired by feasts with his Malaysian aunties and his travels through Asia.

When Scully told us he was choosing marjoram, he wasn’t surprised that we were unfamiliar with it. “Marjoram is like like the herb that time forgot!” He tells. This curious herb is hard to come across. Just a few hours ago, he visited the famous Borough Market vegetable aisle and asked for a bunch of it. The trader had never heard of it. “People afraid of marjoram because it is really hard to find. That creates a circle. It’s not readily available for people to experiment with, so they are less likely to pick it up if they do find it. I read a lot of cookbooks and I rarely come across it.” Marjoram is a relative of oregano, with wide, glossy leaves, most often found in Middle Eastern or Mediterranean recipes. “To me, oregano is the male version, and marjoram is the female version. It’s lighter and more delicate.” Scully says.

He gets to work on lunch; corn kernels sautéed with marjoram, spring onions and shiitake mushrooms, served with sheep’s yogurt, grated cucumbers and burnt corn husks. The result is subtle and moreish, carried along by the lemony, pine-y freshness of the marjoram. Around his kitchen there are little hints of his tireless culinary experiments. In one corner there is a jar of preserved lemons flecked with herbs and spices. In another, he is experimenting with a few types of kombucha. He has been dehydrating whole zucchinis and burning various fruits and vegetables, like the corn skins that he now lifts out of the oven in long, crackling strips. “The greatest chefs don’t find themselves until later on in life.” He remarks, as we discuss his indefatigable recipe writing. “It takes a long time to discover exactly the kind of food you want to cook. A long time and lots of trail and error.”

He serves us lunch and sits across the table from us as we eat. “I think chefs tend to stay away from marjoram. I think they’re scared of it.” He says. “I first came across it in my twenties when I worked with an Italian chef in Sydney. He taught me how to make salsa rosa, which is marjoram pounded with paprika and coriander. It always reminds me of starting out. I started playing with it back then. But then I moved away and I didn’t see it again for years. When I got to London I thought “Where’s all the marjoram?” I started working with a Cornish farmer who grows little baby marjoram. They’re beautiful. They bring so much life to simple dishes. I want to give it the attention it deserves.”

Selin Kiazim – Coriander

Selin Kiazim is getting married soon. The colour theme for the wedding will be teal, the same shade as the stone oven in her Shoreditch restaurant. Oklava is her first permanent space, perching on the corner of a quiet street of sand-coloured brick buildings, a few steps from the bustling heart of East London. Selin started out hosting pop-ups around London, serving dishes based on her Turkish Cypriot heritage. It is the kind of food that silences a tableful of friends, drenching the moment in enough colour and flavour that words become secondary. At least, that was what happened the last time I visited. My brother, whose sole purpose in life is to talk over people, leant back in his chair after fifteen minutes of hushed indulgence. He mopped up the last of a salad, a copper dish of pickled vegetables and lemon, and shook his head. “I think that was the best meal I’ve ever had.” He said, finally.

Among dishes like lamb with sour cherries, monkfish with blood oranges, bread with majool date butter and za’atar crumbed chicken, lovers of Oklava rejoice in the restaurant’s famous pides. These soft flatbreads are stretched out like a boat’s oar, bursting with octopus and honey with ricotta and green olives, or potato with leek, mozzarella and fresh summer truffle. The restaurant, Selin tells us, is named after the rolling pins used to flatten the dough.

Every dish that comes out of Oklava’s open kitchen is embellished with spices and seeds, wedges of citrus fruits and twisted piles of fresh herbs. Coriander is always a feature, glistening with lemon juice or folded in to fresh salads. “I suppose coriander is the herb I use most. Especially in here.” Selin says, pulling up a chair at our table as the lunch service winds down. “It’s so incredibly versatile. My favourite part is the stalk. There’s so much flavour in there. It annoys me if anyone ever throws them away.” Selin recalls a salad that her mother and grandmother used to make when she was growing up. It was a shredded cabbage dish with orange segments, red onion and whole leaves of coriander dressed with lemon juice and olive oil. “I remember loving the way the coriander cut through the rest of the flavours. It’s so dominant and over-the-top fragrant.” That “crunchy, vibrant” salad has influenced Selin’s relationship with coriander. She is fearless with it, using it not as a garnish but as the main body of many dishes. “I love it because so many people dislike it.” She laughs, shrugging on her chef’s whites. “I will never understand that. Maybe I can help change their minds!”